The universe of Jean-Pierre Melville is so specific to the movies that it verges on abstraction. The sun rarely shines and the universe weeps when tough guys die. Le Doulos, a 1963 thriller opening for two weeks in a new and improved 35mm print (June 29 through July 12 at Film Forum), unfolds in Melville's characteristically austere and heavily encoded demimondea bleak, black-and-white terrain inhabited almost exclusively by petty thieves and their tawdry blondes. The title is underworld argot for "hat" and the one who wears the hat, namely an informer.
The most America-philic of French cineastes, Melville named himself after the author of Moby-Dick, drove a Ford Galaxy, affected a Stetson, drank Jack Daniels, and fetishized Hollywood gangster flicks. Le Doulos's specially designed phone booths, its police station, and even its Venetian blinds are self-consciously American. The movie features eight fatal shootings, six of them point-blank, but Melville is less interested in violence than in a certain kind of poetry: He feasts on the sight of a world-weary killer beneath a suburban street lamp, scratching out a shallow trench to stash his gun; adores the image of a black car drenched by a hyperbolic cloudburst; ends his movie with a thunderous close-up of a hat fallen to the ground.
As steeped in ritual as a Japanese tea ceremony, Melville's underworld is governed by primitive emotions, rigorous classicism, and the veil of illusion. Honor among thieves is at once the supreme value and ultimate fantasy. Appearances are deceptive by definitionthe only constant is the underlying misogyny. But why blame women? Le Doulos is a movie in which just about everything and everybody proves false. The movie's twists and turns are so convoluted as to leave the viewer pondering a pretzel. Nouvelle vague icon Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a professional stool pigeon and thug of mystery, whose divided loyalties are never entirely resolved. According to Melville, "It was only when Le Doulos was finished and Belmondo saw himself on the screen that he realized, with great astonishment, 'Christ! The stoolie is me!'"
As signaled by the Afro-Punk Festival's opening-night film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (in a new 35mm print)anything is possible under this groove. Documentary subjects include Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, the Last Poets, and "Afro-punk" itself. Narrative features range from Rod Serling's 1972 vision of a black president, The Man, to David Gordon Green's New South pastoral, George Washington. The most inspired double bill pairs Sam Fuller's 1980 White Dog with the 1965 short Now!, set to the Lena Horne song (sung to the tune of "Hava Nagila") and assembled by Cuban agitprop artist Santiago Á William Greaves will be on hand to introduce his self-reflexive masterpiece, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, and July 4 is Panther Day. June 29 through July 5, BAM.
Kathryn Bigelow has made bigger movies than the 1987 genre flick Near Dark, but none better. Not nearly as celebrated as it ought to be, Near Dark is a poetic horror film that draws its power from the outlaw mythology of Bonnie and Clyde and Gun Crazy (or maybe the Manson Family), and its brooding loneliness from the western landscape. Nothing I've seen in the 20 years since Near Dark appeared has so successfully Americanized the myth of the vampire. 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, MOMA.
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